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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael

Raphael, detail of An Allegory (Vision of a Knight), 1504, National Gallery, London

National Gallery- London 9 April- 31 July 2022

The long-awaited complete exhibition of Raphael was displayed at the National Gallery.

It was postponed by the covid pandemic as it meant to be happened in 2020 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death.

The exhibition, following the example of the one planned concurrently in Rome in 2020 at the Scuderie del Quirinale (Raffaello 1520-1483), aims to attempt to cover the entirety Raphael’s career and the entirety of his output.

Raphael is not to be seen just as a painter and draughtsman but also as an architect, as a designer (in a variety of media from tapestry to prints to applied arts) as a pioneering archaeologist, conservator and art theorist.

With more than 90 objects, all by Raphael, except those in media he did not practise himself but for which he provided designs, 'The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael' demonstrates why the artist plays such a pivotal role in the history of Western art.

As in any exhibitions of this importance there are points of strength and points of weakness.

The strength is the quality of the items presented, the important loans from different museums that allow to be one of the first-ever exhibitions outside Italy to explore the complete career of this key artist.

The weakness of the exhibition is the fact that it is all built around the richness of the collections of Raphael in UK: the largest and finest group of drawings (London, Oxford and Windsor), and the prints and oil paintings from most phases of his career (London and Edinburgh), that are divided in seven sections in the exhibition.

These sections are meant to underline different Raphael’s career period but the overwhelming works are decontextualised from the Italian background of the Renaissance with the main cities as Urbino, Florence and Rome where Raphael grew up and he had soon absorbed and mastered the manners of the most important artists of the period.

There is a lack in understanding the different passages in the rise of the “enfant prodige” to an international and eternal artist.

The first section of the exhibition is dedicated to his early works and his period in one of the most sophisticated courts of Italy in Urbino ruled by the Montelfeltro family. Raphael was the son of Giovanni Santi, painter and humanist for the Duke of Urbino, and Maria di Battista Ciarla. Unfortunately, Raphael lost his mother at age 8 and his father at 11 and was brought up by his uncle.

Raphael’s precocious ability to fuse observation and imagination into carefully planned and elegant compositions won him major public commissions while still in his teens.

The exhibition starts with a beautiful drawing of a young boy, probably Raphael himself at the age of 15-16. There is great intimacy here, a human engagement with a great control. He uses soft black chalk to depict the light caught in his eyes and the subtle shadows falling on his cheeks and lips. Although only faint lines suggest his cap, hair and collar, his beautiful gaze shows Raphael’s already considerable gifts as a draughtsman.

Raphael, Head of a boy (Self-portrait ?), ca 1498, British Museum, London
Raphael, Study for the head of Saint James, ca. 1502, British Museum, London

Raphael, The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels, ca 1502-03, National Gallery, London
Raphael, San Sebastian, ca1502-03, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

In the Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints and angels, Raphael shows clarity of colours, the ability of communicate the essence of the subject, the elegance of line and idealised the oval-faced figures that indicate his absorbing lessons from his master Perugino.

The influence of his master can be seen in the beautiful young Saint Sebastian, in the contemplative wonder of the Saint James’s head drawing and in the exquisitely small panel An allegory (Vision of a Knight) a Knight divided between Virtue and Vice.

Raphael, An Allegory (Vision of a Knight), 1504, National Gallery, London

Raphael from 1504-05 to 1508 was established in Florence. When he arrived in Florence, he was confronted with a stirring challenge. Leonardo and Michelangelo, the one his senior by thirty-one years, the other by eight years, were setting up new standards in art in which nobody had ever dreamed.

Raphael absorbed from Leonardo the ability to animate his characters with a sense of inner life, from Michelangelo the dynamic expressiveness and from Donatello the emotional intimacy.

Raphael, The Virgin and child with the infant Saint John the Baptist and Child Saint (Terranuova Madonna), ca 1505-06, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemaldergalerie

The Virgin and child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist and Child Saint (The Terranuova Madonna) was one of his early attempts at a tondo, a round type of painting particularly associate with Florence and Raphael creates the type of pyramidal or triangular composition he would often use subsequently.

Noticeable in the soft sfumato, the extroverted gestures, and the developed spatiality is the influence of Leonardo da Vinci, who had returned to Florence from Milan in 1503. His art made a deep impression on Raphael, who borrowed the motif of the Virgin’s gracefully outstretched left hand from Leonardo’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder (1501).

Raphael, Portrait of a woman (La Muta), ca 1505, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino

In La Muta, the picture portrays an unknown noblewoman over a near-black background, showing some Leonardesque influences, especially in her reserved posture with her arms folded similar to the Mona Lisa’s one. The adaptation he made to Leonardo’s style was a sensational success, honing the classical noses and poses, but removing the bizarre chiaroscuro. This created a noble, balanced, clear figurative art that was taught for centuries as the correct, perfect style, until modernism knocked it off its pedestal.

In this exhibition you felt the original joy of that pure, almost mathematical method especially in the most common subject represented in Renaissance art: the “Madonnas”.

Raphael was supremely gifted when it came to painting the subject, able to vary the theme endlessly and to capture the power of a mother’s love for, and delight in, her newborn child.

On his arrival in Rome, Raphael quickly gained important patronage as the Senese Banker Agostino Chigi.

Chigi, the Pope’s banker and one of the richest men in Italy, commissioned to him frescoes (Villa Farnesina) and designs for chapels in two Roman churches: Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo.

In both of the chapels Raphael’s combined a multimedia assemble: in Pace chapel frescoes, two bronze roundels and a planned altarpiece; in Santa Maria del Popolo he designed the octagonal chapel and decided to decorate with marbles, frescoes, sculptures and mosaics.

His interest in different media blossomed in Rome and he became involved with printmaking, designs for decorative art and tapestries, archaeology and architecture.

Raphael, Chigi Chapel, ca1512-16, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

To manage all this projects, he ran a solid workshop, which became the largest and most productive artistic enterprise in Rome. He trained a highly number of gifted artists such as Giulio Romano, his principal assistant portraited by him in the beautiful Self-portrait with Giulio Romano.

Raphael was an entrepreneur with the gift for seizing opportunities specially working for two Popes in Rome.

Pope Julius II commissioned him the decoration of one of the Stanze, his private apartment and Raphael soon took control of the entire project. In the Stanza della Segnatura there is the most famous fresco the School of Athens, subject that represents the temporal and spiritual power as well as the aspirations of its rule.

Raphael, The School of Athens, 1509-1511, Stanza della Segnatura, Musei Vaticani, Città del Vaticano

Under Leo X he started an ambitious project of survey of ancient Rome with measured drawings of buildings and sculptures, promoted the study of classical art theory and wrote an important letter about conservation and preservation against the destruction of the remains of the ancient Rome.

The last room is the most fascinating as it is completely dedicated to his portraiture. Raphael was generally too busy to take a commission on this domain, unless there was a strong political subject or a private one.

Raphael, Baldassare Castiglione, 1519, Musée du Louvre, Paris
Raphael, Self-Portrait, ca. 1506, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Galleria Palatina, Florence

Raphael, self portrait with Giulio Romano, 1519-20, Musée du Louvre, Paris

There is the portrait of his friend Baldassare Castiglione, an almost monochrome painting where the only colours are the beautiful blue eyes that are catching our attention.

Raphael was a good-looking youth, as he shows us himself in his lyrical, tender Self-Portrait lent from the Uffizi gallery and his loves for women wasn’t just spiritual but mundane as we can see in the portraits of his lovers.

La Velata (The woman with the veil) that gives the name to the portrayed woman, probably referred that the woman was married. According to Giorgio Vasari the work features Margherita Luti, known as La Fornarina, a woman who Raphael loved throughout his life, but the exquisite gown and jewels are more indicative of a commissioned portrait of a young noblewoman. The jewels of the woman have several meanings: the neckless inspired by Roman granite and the ruby are symbols of love, the diamond is symbol of a firm love and the pearl, symbol of chastity, was called Margherita as the name of his lover Margherita Luti.

Raphael, La Velata (The woman with the veil), ca. 1516, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Galleria Palatina, Florence
Raphael, Portrait of a woman (La Fornarina),1519-20, Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica, Rome

Raphael, detail of Portrait of a woman (La Fornarina),1519-20, Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica, Rome

In front of the Velata there is another famous portrait La Fornarina. This portrait is not representing an ideal of female beauty, but an actual woman depicted with a strong intimacy in her nudity. He also boldly signed with the painter's signature on a band in her left arm.

The woman is traditionally identified with the Fornarina (baker) Margherita Luti and the portrait was in his studio at his death in 1520.

He died of a fever, quite unexpectedly, at the age of 37 on Good Friday and according to Vasari, his death was like a second passion.

A painter, draughtsman, architect, designer and archaeologist who captured in his art the human and the divine, love, friendship, learning, and power, and who gave us quintessential images of beauty and civilisation: Raphael’s life was short, his work prolific, and his legacy immortal.

The inscription over Raphael's sarcophagus says:

Ille hic est Raphael timuit quo sospite vinci rerum magna parens et morienti mori

Here lies Raphael. While he was alive, the mother of all things (Nature) feared she would be surpassed by him; when he died, she feared that she too would die.

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